ELLSWORTH — In a first for the East Coast, a shellfish farm located in federal waters, outside the three-mile limit of state-controlled waters, is expected to begin operation in Nantucket Sound sometime next year.
Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had approved a permit for a 28.5-acre mussel aquaculture lease site located in 55 to 65 feet of water about four miles off Cape Cod. The site is just inside the east-facing opening of the U-shaped Horseshoe Shoal and just outside the boundaries of the controversial 130-turbine, 24 square-mile Cape Wind offshore wind farm.
Initially, the Corps has approved three suspended long-line units on the site. According to Scott Lindell, director of the Scientific Aquaculture Program at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and the scientific consultant on the project, each suspended line will have the capacity to grow 10,000 pounds of mussels annually. An improved design could double that capacity.
The three-line farm is a pilot project for what could become a large commercial farm. If the operation proves economically and environmentally feasible, Lindell said, Chatham, Mass.-based Santoro Fisheries Corp. expects to install a total of 25 lines that could produce as much as 500,000 pounds of mussels on the site every year.
Domenic Santoro — the applicant company’s owner — is no stranger to the mussel business. Lindell said Santoro has been a wild-harvest fisherman for at least 20 years, knows the market and already has the equipment needed to harvest, grade and bag mussels from the farm site.
Mussel farming is not new to East Coast waters. There are several small commercial mussel farms in Massachusetts, and perhaps a dozen mussel lease sites in Maine that in 2012, the last year for which the Department of Marine Resources has published figures, produced about 651,000 pounds of mussels worth some $783,000, primarily cultured on the sea bottom.
There are at least two mussel farms in Blue Hill Bay that use suspended culture — one just over two acres located off Hardwood Island on the west side of Mount Desert Island, the other about 30 acres in size off the eastern shore of Long Island.
According to Lindell, the hope was that the federal permitting process would prove “more painless and transparent” than trying to get an aquaculture lease in state waters. In Maine, it can take years for an application to pass through the Department of Marine Resources review.
It turned out that the federal route was more cumbersome than expected.
“I thought it would take six months. It took 15,” Lindell said.
Part of the problem was that Santoro was required to prepared a detailed biological assessment that “went back and forth” between NOAA, the Corps and the applicant for review, with each response taking longer than expected.
Although the waters including the lease site are already thick with thousands of vertical conch trap buoy lines during the summer, one major issue confronting the project was how to protect federally protected species that might become entangled.
Each line installation consists of a pair of vertical lines anchored 600 feet apart at the bottom and buoyed at the top with a 480-foot horizontal head rope connecting them 30 feet above the sea floor and at least 20 feet below the surface. Biodegradable socks in which the mussels are grown would hang from the horizontal line.
According to Lindell, while NOAA’s aquaculture division was advocating for the project’s approval, the agency’s protected resources office was concerned that endangered leatherback turtles, which frequent the Horseshoe Shoal area during their annual migrations, might become snagged in the vertical lines.
Hanging and marker buoy lines will all be encased in hard HDPE plastic pipes to reduce that risk.
Despite the delays, Lindell said the review process was “even-handed, even though it took longer than any of us would like.” In the end, he said, “all of us are satisfied with the outcome.”